A traveling priest (waki) arrives at the village of Uji where he meets an old man (shite in act one). The priest asks if there are any places of interest around. The old man refuses to answer him at first, but soon relents and gives a full account of the numerous sights along Uji River. Next, he guides the priest to the place called "The Fan-shaped Lawn" in Byōdō-in Temple, and recounts the story of its origin. The legend says that it was on this very lawn that Minamoto-no-Yorimasa committed seppuku after losing the battle against the army of the Heike clan. The old man adds that the battle took place on this very same day many years ago. Finally, he reveals that he is in fact the ghost of Yorimasa, and disappears.
A local man (ai) from Uji appears, and, at the priest's request, talks about the causes for the rebellion which led to the battle of Uji. Before leaving, he recommends that the priest hold a memorial service for the repose of Yorimasa's soul. The priest starts praying and soon the ghost of Yorimasa appears before him - an old man dressed in full armour despite being a Buddhist monk. Yorimasa begins narrating the events of the battle of Uji.
Yorimasa urged Prince Takakura (Mochihito) to rebel against the Heike, but the plot was revealed and Yorimasa and his followers fled to Byōdō-in Temple. Yorimasa's troops removed the boards of Uji Bridge and lay in wait for the Heike. Under the command of Tawara-no-Tadatsuna, the army of the Heike rushed across the violent waters of Uji River, as Yorimasa's troops were retreating.
There, Yorimasa composed his death poem: "How sad it is to end my life this way - just another piece of bog-wood that never had its chance to flower", and, after laying his fan on the lawn in front of Byōdō-in Temple, he committed seppuku.
Yorimasa's ghost ends his tragic tale. Asking the priest to keep praying for his repose, he disappears into the grass of the Fan-shaped Lawn.
The Noh play "Yorimasa" was written by Zeami. It is based on the classic "The Tale of the Heike". Minamoto-no-Yorimasa was a military commander, who lived at the end of the Heian period (late 12c). He excelled at both martial arts and literature, especially Japanese waka poetry. Although a member of the Genji clan, he was in fact an ally of Taira-no-Kiyomori during the Heiji Rebellion. Quite unsuccessful in his political career, he was not promoted until he reached old age. Subsequently, Yorimasa urged Prince Takakura (Mochihito) to overthrow the Heike clan, but the plot was revealed before it could be carried out. The prince and Yorimasa had no other choice but to flee to Nara. Along the way, they fought with the Heike at Byōdō-in Temple in Uji.
The story of "The Fan-shaped Lawn", which allegedly marks the place of Yorimasa's suicide, does not appear in "The Tale of the Heike" and is thought to have been incorporated into the play "Yorimasa" from folk tales dating from the Middle Ages.
Uji, the area where the play is set, is also famous for being the main setting of the last ten chapters of the classic novel "The Tale of Genji". This is the reason why in "Yorimasa", during the scene where the old man enumerates the famous sights in Uji, he mentions places and expressions associated with "The Tale of Genji" such as "Kojima Headland", "Tachibana Islet", "firewood boat", etc., thus elegantly depicting the moonlit hamlet of Uji.
The highlights of the second half are the description of the fierce battle of Uji and Yorimasa's heartfelt regret.
The narration progresses with a powerful and fast-paced chant. Yorimasa's ghost sits on a stool (a stage prop called ‘kazura-oke’ in Noh) and, as if overlooking the entire battle, describes the scenery through narrative and song as he keeps time by stomping his feet and performing gestures with the folding fan. The battle on the bridge, the Heike troops trying to cross the river - the scenes unfold one after the other, as the war between Genji and Heike spreads like a picture scroll before our eyes. After the episode featuring the epic battle, Yorimasa shifts the narrative's focus onto himself as he gets ready to commit suicide. It is a powerful scene that brings the old warrior's emotional state into sharp focus.